While doing some research recently, I came across some articles in the Dawson Daily News for September 24 1909. They were a call for the erection of a statue in honour of Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten, who had just died in San Francisco on September 2.
The proposal to commemorate McQuesten with a statue never came to anything. Nearly a century later, on August 11, 2007, however, a brass plaque recognizing his historical contribution to the Yukon was unveiled on the Dawson City dike, near the foot of Harper Street. Ed and Star Jones, and many members of the McQuesten family and the Yukon Order of Pioneers were in attendance. He is also remembered by many place names scattered across the Yukon.
Jack McQuesten was probably born in New Hampshire, July 9, 1836. At the age of 35 he first entered the Yukon by the back door. He followed the gold rushes into northern British Columbia, and from there he and a small number of others followed the rivers to the Mackenzie in the Northwest Territories. Farther down the Mackenzie, he and his party crossed the divide into present-day Yukon and travelled down the Porcupine until they reached Fort Yukon at its mouth in August 1873.
McQuesten later described in his memoir the hardship and deprivation they experienced during this journey. When they arrived at Fort Yukon, they obtained the first flour they had seen in 18 months. They built a cabin that winter, and lacking glass, they cut out blocks of ice weekly as substitute panes. Now that is cold living!
The following year, McQuesten, now working for the Alaska Commercial Company, established Fort Reliance, just a few miles below the mouth of the Klondike River. Despite its proximity to the Klondike, it was another 22 years before gold was discovered on one of its tributaries.
At Fort Reliance, over the next 11 years, he traded for furs, and occasionally prospected for gold. The first party of prospectors that wintered over at Fort Reliance did so the winter of 1882. This group, which included Joe Ladue (who eventually founded Dawson City), dug for gold with McQuesten in the Sixtymile region before winter set in.
McQuesten formed a partnership with Arthur Harper, who also arrived in the Yukon basin in 1873 over the same route. They couldn’t make a living prospecting, so they resorted to trading and going on prospecting trips whenever they could find the opportunity. They allied themselves with a third man, Al Mayo, and the trio became the mainstays of commercial trade in the upper Yukon for the next decade.
When prospectors started coming in to the Yukon, the traders zeroed in on supplying their needs as their main line of business. It paid off when gold was subsequently found in the Stewart River, Fortymile, Sixtymile and Birch Creek regions, and the traders followed the miners to these places. Harper and McQuesten opened a trading post at the new mining town of Forty Mile in 1887.
The traders were both influential and essential to the development of Yukon mining in the early days. Everyone came to the trading post for supplies, so the posts became the obvious place to exchange information about the latest finds. McQuesten constantly wrote letters and sent them Outside, optimistically proclaiming the potential for mineral discovery in the Yukon basin. It was McQuesten and the other traders who supplied the miners and encouraged them to continue prospecting for the big find.
During this period, McQuesten became known for his generous practice of grubstaking the miners, and carrying over their indebtedness until they eventually found enough gold to clear their accounts. By comparison, the North American Transportation and Trading Company, a competing trading firm that arrived in Fortymile in 1893, remained unpopular with the miners because they offered lower prices, but demanded prompt payment.
Many prospectors owed so much to the traders that they were trapped in the country until they could pay off their debt. In one instance, a miner came to Jack to square up his outstanding account balance. He owed $700 dollars but only had five. McQuesten offered to carry over the balance to the following year. The fellow then complained that he hadn’t had his spree yet. So McQuesten told him to go have his spree, which the man did, leaving Jack to carry forward the entire amount to the following year, plus $500 for another year’s grubstake.
On December 1st, 1894, 69 of the residents of the town of Forty Mile met to form the Yukon Order of Pioneers. Membership was restricted to those who had been in the Yukon valley before 1888. Their motto became “do as you would be done by.” Jack McQuesten was elected as the first president of the fraternity.
When gold was discovered in the Klondike, Jack McQuesten was able to cash in all of the unpaid debts, and left the North a wealthy man. Around 1878, he married a native woman who became known as Kate, and together, they raised 11 children. After the Klondike, he moved to San Francisco, bought a mansion overlooking San Francisco Bay, and ensured that his children got a good education. McQuesten was 73 when he died; his wife remained in their home and died nine years later.
The miners remembered him for his generosity and because his grubstake policy allowed for many of them to continue their quest for gold year after year until the big strike was made. For this and many other reasons, they bestowed on him the title of “Father of the Yukon.”
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available.
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